On Attention

In recent years, I have struggled with my attention. I have struggled to focus on much of anything in my life. I haven't been able to read books quickly or effectively; I have struggled to get into that superfocused programming state at work.

I assumed that perhaps I had undiagnosed ADHD. Who knows, that may even be true. But increasingly I think it's more likely that I've done this to myself.

Since I got my first smartphone in 2009, I have been in a constant mode of stimulation. Around that same time I discovered podcasts and audiobooks. These were a boon to me, especially on commutes. Suddenly I felt like that time was no longer wasted.

Social media became ubiquitous. Reddit had a constant stream of fascinating or interesting content. Twitter vied for my attention. Algorithms worked to keep me engaged all of the time.

It's not an interesting story, nor an original one. Our reading lists are full of books about breaking up with our phones, deleting social media, and reclaiming our focus. But the one who finally made me see the problems in my own life was CGP Grey. On the (amazing) podcast Hello Internet, he explored this problem in his own life. His story was remarkably similar to mine. I especially empathized with his problems with podcasts. Don't get me wrong -- podcasts are incredible. The world of podcasts has never been better, and podcasts are one of only a few things that haven't been consumed by algorithms (yet). They are a net positive in the world. But my problems with podcasts are a symptom of something larger (in myself).

I found myself rarely without headphones in my ears. The breaking point was when I found myself putting my Airpods in for the 30 seconds that it took me to go to the bathroom. Silence made me physically uncomfortable. I used headphones as an excuse to avoid interacting with people. It was a real problem.

Another problem area I identified was slack (and to a lesser extent, email). Having these amazing tools available all the time on my phone (and open all day on my computer), I found myself self-interrupting constantly throughout the day to see if there was something new in the #videogames channel, the #photography channel, or in our team or service channels. Even when there were no notifications, I would interrupt and check my slack or email. A combination of my proclivity to procrastinate and my brains addiction to these inputs was letting me get nothing done.

It was also encroaching on my family life. I would open slack when I first woke up in the morning and find a notification from someone in India. Rather than waiting until my workday started, I would reply and end up working for an hour. The same thing would happen on weekends or in the evenings.

My solution

I cut out all podcasts and audiobooks for almost a month. This was just a reset -- there was never any chance I would stay away from podcasts. But I needed some time, and needed some silence.

I've since resumed podcasts, but don't listen to them first thing in the morning, or before bed. I try to limit them to commutes and chores, or times when I consciously decide to listen (and decide it won't interrupt my interactions with my family).

With permission from my manager, I instituted (and communicated) a new policy for email and slack. I would only check them at the beginning and end of the workday, and never outside of work hours or on the weekends. I gave out my cell number and told people to call me instead.

I disabled most notifications on my phone, including all email notifications. (My personal email is never urgent, either). I completely signed out of my work slack.

I also set a goal to read for an average of an hour a day.

Note that I wasn't trying to reduce screen time. I love video games and have no desire to stop playing them. But I wanted my time to be used with intentionality -- to never feel like I've been wasting time on useless phone games and pointless reddit threads.

Did it work?

I think so! I'm still in the middle of it, but I'm getting more done at work than I have in months. I'm reading more than I have in years. And my phone pickups have fallen by more than half. I interact more with my family, and am becoming OK with silence.

So?

I know, this is long and rambling. And perhaps you don't have any of the same problems that I have and continue to fight.

But if any of this resonated with you, I encourage you to make a change. Your solutions may not look like mine -- everyone has different goals and needs. But we need to control our own lives.

Technology and the internet are amazing tools. Let's use them, rather than letting them use us.

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